CAIRO -- An American citizen and at least three other people died Friday in demonstrations in Egypt that ushered in what was expected to be days of civil conflict over the rule of President Mohammed Morsi.
At least another 65 people were injured, most of them by birdshot in Alexandria, in turmoil that included crowds burning photographs of the U.S. ambassador and calling for the return of military rule. In perhaps the biggest irony of all, protesters brandished images of disgraced former President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, the very place where protesters gathered nearly two and a half years ago to demand Mubarak’s ouster.
Across the country, crowds set fire to at least four offices belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood or its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. At times, local news stations showed as many as nine screens of protests, both in support of and opposition to Morsi, the nation’s first democratically elected leader, whose first anniversary in office is to be marked by still more demonstrations this weekend.
By midnight, with no sign of a letup in the chaos, the U.S. Embassy announced that embassy personnel and their dependents could voluntarily leave the country.
Police officials in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, confirmed that an American had been killed in a melee with protesters, but the identification they provided was incomplete and local news reports gave various versions of the victim’s name.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell acknowledged about 2:30 a.m. Saturday Cairo time that an American had died.
“We can confirm that a U.S. citizen was killed in Alexandria, Egypt,” Ventrell said. “We are providing appropriate consular assistance from our embassy in Cairo and our Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department. We do not have further information to provide at this time."
Gen. Amin Ezz al Din, the head of security in Alexandria, told McClatchy that the American, who he described as a 21-year-old male, was fatally stabbed around 3:30 p.m. as he was filming clashes “with a small camera: between pro- and anti-Morsi protesters. Din said the American was swept up in the fight and stabbed in the chest “with some sort of machete.” Protesters dragged the victim to an ambulance, Din said, where paramedics declared him dead.
“Those who killed him and others are suspected thugs,” Din told McClatchy.
U.S. officials at first would not confirm the death. Reached by phone, Marc J. Sievers, the deputy chief of mission in Cairo, said questions about a possible dead American at 10 p.m. were “really inappropriate.”
“We have a press office for that,” he said, before hanging up.
About an hour later, the embassy tweeted: “We are seeking to confirm report of American death in Alexandria. Thank you for concern.”
The events underscored how nuanced the political situation in Egypt has become, one year after Morsi took office.
The burning of photos of U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson underscored the rising criticism that the United States faces here.
Morsi’s government has accused the United States of meddling, prosecuting 16 Americans earlier this year for working for pro-democracy organizations in the country. Now anti-Morsi forces claim Patterson has sided with the Morsi government, citing comments she made that called on Morsi opponents to seek a political solution to the country’s conflicts, rather than mount more street protests.